I have been asked repeatedly, “Why South Africa?”
I want to respond, simply, that this is where I have sensed the Lord leading me. But I have found that this response is not helpful, or compelling, for many people.
Instead of speaking this dialect of spiritualese, I usually share about how rich the South African context is for contemplating the issues of war and peace that are the subject of my research. Truth and Reconciliation originated here, after all.
(Me and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2014.)
Or, I sometimes share with people that I really appreciate how different my colleagues here in South Africa are from my colleagues back in the States. I talk about how important it is for me to engage the diverse viewpoints of Black Africans from all over the continent, as well as to engage with the different African ways of being, knowing and communicating as I think about war, race, power and money.
Lately, though, a deeper reason for my being in South Africa has bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. More than the social and political significance of my location, and more than the diversity of cultural perspective that adds immeasurably to my project, what makes my being in South Africa so necessary to the research and writing that I am doing, is that my Being is different when I am in this place.
Here in South Africa, I live with internal tensions related to issues of racial, economic, social, and religious identity that are simply not a part of my life when I am in the U.S.
For example, in the U.S. I am Black. In South Africa, despite the fact that Black South Africans frequently mistake me for isiXhosa, I am not a South African Black person. Nor am I Colored or White. I am not Malay Indian, Chinese, or Persian either. I am none of the above. It is not clear who people say that I am.
When I am in the U.S. I see in predictable places those without homes and those who beg as a means of supporting themselves, and I may or may not choose to be in such places and to interact with such people on any particular day. In Cape Town, homelessness and poverty are inescapable parts of the city wherever you go. The relentless reminder of impoverishment requires a continuous decision on my part as to how, not if, I will engage with the poor. In the U.S. I do not have wealth. In South Africa I do.
(A business, a home, and the communal toilets in a Black township.)
In my U.S. world, Jesus loves me and Christianity means church on Sunday, prayer, bible reading, and doing good to others. In my South Africa, Jesus loves each and every one of us, and Christianity means resisting injustice, speaking out for the voiceless, and championing the cause of the powerless. In the U.S., my being Spirit-filled means one thing, in South Africa it means another.
All of these issues of personal identity—race, economic and social class, as well as religious tradition—are implicated in the research that I do with respect to war. Though I have not fully worked out the connection between personal identity and war, I know that war is absolutely personal—both for the victors and for the vanquished. I know that our individual identities, who we think we are and who we think they are, are what make us move toward or away from armed conflict, both individually and as nation-states. I know that who makes decisions about war, who fights and where/how they fight in war, and who is deemed an enemy or an ally in war, all hinge on issues of personal identity.
The unplanned shifts in my identity resulting from my locatedness in South Africa, and my ability to blur the edges and move between the rigid categories that define so much of our conversation about who we are, will serve me well, I think, as I work on understanding the relationship that God, the church, and humanity have with war.